Black Lives Drawn and Stories of Struggle Told Through Comics

Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez’s WAKE: THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF WOMEN-LED SLAVE REVOLTS (Simon & Schuster, 208 pp., $29.99) is a recove...


Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez’s WAKE: THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF WOMEN-LED SLAVE REVOLTS (Simon & Schuster, 208 pp., $29.99) is a recovery project of a different sort: It dramatizes Hall’s search for any evidence she can find of female slave rebellion, across centuries of archival documents. The details are often tantalizing, heartbreaking and scarce. And while Hall (a lawyer and historian) does present a chapter on her grandmother Harriet, born into slavery, who wanted to stay in Omaha in 1913 to fight the Klan while her husband urged a move to Chicago, the most searing narratives locate us in uprisings in colonial New York City and on a 1769 English slave ship. “Wake” imagines — which is to say, it scripts and visualizes — the stories of the women Hall finds in archives, about whom she knows only small bits of information from incomplete records. She positions this as trying to do a service to the dead: “All I can do for them is imagine their story.” Martínez’s black-and-white drawings carry enough detail to reconstruct these lives but look loose enough to feel evocative and poetic.

“Wake” is especially powerful when treating the visual culture of slavery, such as the infamous, often-reproduced 1787 Brookes Diagram, which displays the maximum number of slaves allowed by regulation for stowage in horrifically packed ship quarters. Martínez and Hall reprint and counter the diagram, offering panels of individual faces and bodies, aiming to restore humanity to those previously illustrated as cargo. As Hall reports, there was a revolt on one in 10 slave ships; and the more women aboard, the more likely a revolt. “Wake,” then, is operating in the wake of slavery, and in a state of being awake to the past, a process Hall frames as both devastating and grounding.

When I first started FACTORY SUMMERS (Drawn & Quarterly, 152 pp., $22.95), by the French Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle, the phrase that kept coming to mind was “aggressively modest.” Was Delisle, by turning to his teenage job at a pulp and paper mill, just scraping around for more stories, having already published a slew of celebrated comics travelogues (starting with the riveting “Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea” in 2005)? This slim volume really grew on me, though: It’s a poignant, understated book that avoids overexplaining (except bits on machinery and how paper is made), allowing the reader to linger in the gaps across vignettes. Some of these quiet episodes are quite lovely, especially those limned at the edges with mourning. The gulf between Delisle and his divorced father, for instance, also a mill employee, is vast; they rarely see each other, even when working in the same building. The break room scenes, in which the young Delisle is silent, often center on sex (in surprising ways; I felt jolted out of a reverie by their frank, explicit content) and are reported with a keen ear. “Factory Summers” is the key to Delisle’s nonfiction oeuvre: It shows his growing curiosity, in those formative years, both about how things function structurally and about people — and how he learned to listen to them. Its light touch makes a big impact.

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